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John Harris Harbison (born December 20, 1938) is an American composer, known for his symphonies, operas, and large choral works.


John Harris Harbison was born on December 20, 1938, in Orange, New Jersey, to the historian Elmore Harris Harbison and Janet German Harbison. The Harbisons were a musical family; Elmore had studied composition in his youth and Janet wrote songs.[1] Harbison's sisters Helen and Margaret were musicians as well. He won the prestigious BMI Foundation's Student Composer Awards for composition at the age of sixteen in 1954. He studied music at Harvard University (BA 1960), where he sang with the Harvard Glee Club, and later at the Berlin Musikhochschule and at Princeton (MFA 1963). He is an Institute Professor of music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a former student of Walter Piston and Roger Sessions. His works include several symphonies, string quartets, and concerti for violin, viola, and bass viol (double bass).

He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1987 for The Flight into Egypt, and in 1989 he received a $305,000 MacArthur Fellowship.[2] In 1998 he was awarded the 4th Annual Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities.[3] He was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal in 2000.[4] In 2006 a recording of his Mottetti di Montale was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Small Ensemble Performance category.

The Metropolitan Opera commissioned Harbison's The Great Gatsby to celebrate James Levine's 25th anniversary with the company. The opera premiered on December 20, 1999, conducted by Levine and starring Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Mark Baker, Dwayne Croft, and Richard Paul Fink.

In 1991, Harbison was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival in conjunction with Peter Maxwell Davies.

Harbison was jointly commissioned by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to write a piece for the "Papal Concert of Reconciliation." The event was co-officiated by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rav Elio Toaff, the Imam of the Mosque of Rome, Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, and Pope John Paul II. Abraham, a six-minute composition for brass and antiphonal choirs, had its world premiere on January 17, 2004, performed by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a choir made up of members of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, the London Philharmonic Choir, the Krakow Philharmonic Choir, and the Ankara Polyphonic Choir, under the baton of Sir Gilbert Levine.

Harbison was previously the principal guest conductor for Emmanuel Music in Boston; after founding director Craig Smith's untimely death in 2007, Harbison was named Acting Artistic Director.

When asked in 1990 for his "artistic credo" Harbison replied: "to make each piece different from the others, to find clear, fresh large designs, to reinvent traditions."

He is married to violinist Rose Mary Harbison (née Pederson).

Discography (Incomplete)Edit

  • Mirabai Songs / Variations (1987). Northeastern Records NR 230-CD. Performed by Janice Felty, mezzo-soprano, Collage New Music Ensemble, conducted by John Harbison — Rose Mary Harbison, violin; David Satz, clarinet; Ursula Oppens, piano. Tracks 1-6: Mirabai Songs, text from Mirabai Versions by Robert Bly. Tracks 7-10: Variations, for violin, clarinet, and piano. Track Listing:
  1. I. It's True, I Went to the Market
  2. II. All I Was Doing Was Breathing
  3. III. Why Mira Can't Go Back to Her Old House
  4. IV. Where Did You Go?
  5. V. The Clouds
  6. VI. Don't Go, Don't Go
  7. Variations i-v
  8. Variations vi-x
  9. Variations xi-xv
  10. Finale and Epilogue
  1. The Flight into Egypt, text from the King James translation of the story of the Flight into Egypt in the Gospel of Matthew
  2. The Natural World: Prelude
  3. Where We Must Look for Help, text from Robert Bly
  4. On the Road Home, text from Wallace Stevens
  5. Milkweed, text from James Wright
  6. Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra: I. Invention on a Motif: Tempo giusto
  7. II. Invention on a Chord: Cantabile
  8. III. Invention on a Cadence: Molto allegro
  • At First Light (1998). Archetype Records 60106. Performed by Lorraine Hunt, mezzo-soprano, Dawn Upshaw, soprano, Greenleaf Chamber Players, and Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Scott Yoo. Tracks:
  1. Due Libri dei Mottetti di Montale
  2. Snow Country
  3. Chorale Cantata
  4. Concerto for Oboe, Clarinet, and Strings
  • John Harbison: Ulysses' Bow / Samuel Chapter (2004). First Edition ASIN: B0002RQ35C. Tracks:
  1. Ulysses' Bow ballet performed by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conducted by André Previn
  2. Samuel Chapter performed by Susan Larson (soprano) and conducted by John Harbison
  • The Reawakening, String Quartet No. 3, Fantasia on a Ground, Thanks Victor (2001). Musica Omnia om0110. Lydian String Quartet, Dominique Labelle, soprano.
  • World Premiere Recordings: Violin Concerto, Recordare, Seven Motets (1997). Koch 3-7310-2-H1. Emmanuel Music, Craig Smith, conductor, Rose-Mary Harbison, violin.
  • Sessions: Symphony No. 2; Harbison: Symphony No. 2, Oboe Concerto (1994). london 443 376-2. San Francisco Symphony, Herbert Bloomstedt, conductor, William Bennet, oboe.
  • String Quartet No.1/String Quartet No. 2/November 19, 1828 (1992). Lydian String Quartet, Yehudi Wyner, piano.
  • Simple Daylight/Words from Patterson/Piano Quintet, (1999). Electra Nonesuch 79189-2. Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Gilbert Kalish, piano, Sanford Sylvan, baritone, Dawn Upshaw, soprano.
  • Four Psalms/Emerson (2004). New World Records 80613-2. Cantata Singers and Ensemble, David Hoose, conductor.
  • Mottetti di Montale (2005). Koch KIC-CD-7545. Collage New Music, David Hoose, music director, Janice Felty and Margaret Lattimore mezzo-sopranos.




  • Ulysses (1983)


  • Incidental Music from The Merchant of Venice (1971), for string orchestra
  • Elegiac Songs (1974), for mezzo-soprano & chamber orchestra
    commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation
  • Diotima (1976)
    commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress
  • Piano Concerto (1978), for piano & chamber orchestra
    commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for Robert Miller
  • Snow Country (1979), for oboe & string orchestra
    commissioned by Dr. Maurice Pechet, New England Arts Patron
  • Violin Concerto (1978–80), for violin & chamber orchestra
External video
  John Harbison (on his Symphony No. 1), March 22, 1984, 4:20, Boston TV Digital Archive[5]






  1. ^ [1] Obituary of Janet G. H. Penfield. Town Topics, January 28, 2004.
  2. ^ Harbison winds MacArthur fellowship
  3. ^ The Heinz Awards, John Harbison profile
  4. ^ "History of the Harvard Arts Medal". Harvard University Office for the Arts. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  5. ^ “Ten O'Clock News; John Harbison,” 1984-03-22, 4:20, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 23, 2016.

Additional resourcesEdit

  • Harbison, John. "Six Tanglewood Talks (1,2,3)." Perspectives of New Music 23, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 1985): 12-22.
  • Harbison, John. "Six Tanglewood Talks (4,5,6)." Perspectives of New Music, 24, no.1 (Autumn-Winter 1985): 46-60.
  • Harbison, John. "Symmetries and the New Tonality." Contemporary Music Review 6, no. 2 (1992): 71-79.

External linksEdit